The World’s System for Resettling Refugees Benefits the United States
By dismantling it, Trump would leave the country—and refugees—worse off.
In its quest to drastically limit the number of immigrants and refugees entering the United States, the Trump administration has often claimed, falsely, that refugees constitute an unfair burden on the country, implying that the United States has been forced to do more than its fair share to care for the world’s dislocated.
But Secretary of State Mike Pompeo’s announcement last month that the United States will accept just 30,000 refugees for resettlement next year—the lowest number since 1980—threatens to unravel a global compact that has actually lightened the United States’ load and spread the costs of refugees and resettlement across many nations.
Worldwide, about 65.6 million people have fled their homes to escape conflict, economic crisis, and persecution. That figure includes 25.5 million refugees, the highest number on record. The last time the international community faced a crisis that even came close was in the years following World War II. In those days, nations came together under the auspices of the United Nations to negotiate the 1951 Convention Relating to the Status of Refugees, which remains the agreed international framework for dealing with refugees to this day.
Under the compact, the primary responsibility for caring for refugees lies with countries neighboring the one from which the refugees are fleeing. Given the numbers, there is no other way to do it: Not only would the logistics of moving such a large population a longer distance be virtually impossible, doing so would also make it harder to eventually return the refugees home. Experience has shown that the closer refugees remain to their native country, the more likely they are to go back. And that should be the goal for the international community. The other part of the compact is that countries farther away from the crisis implicitly agree to take in small numbers of the most vulnerable refugees and to provide resources to help the nations most affected by refugee inflows cope.
This arrangement has meant that, time and time again, the poorest and least developed countries have had to step in to host enormous refugee populations—and often very suddenly and without much certainty that international support would follow. For example, during 100 days last fall, more than 620,000 Rohingya from Myanmar were welcomed in Bangladesh, a country with a GDP about 1 percent the size of the United States’. In fact, about 88 percent of refugees wind up in low- and middle-income countries. Wishes to return home aside, most do remain in host countries long term; on average, a refugee will be displaced for 10 years, and in 2017, less than 3 percent of them returned home.
On the other side of the agreement, countries such as the United States have generally supported the front-line states with critical funding. Indeed, the United States has long distinguished itself as the world’s largest donor to refugee programming.
But it is also true that providing resources alone isn’t enough. The best way for the United States to prove that the care of refugees is a U.S. priority is to resettle some of them within its own borders—something it usually reserves for the most vulnerable: those with safety, medical, or family reunification needs that cannot be met in the host communities. Only 1 percent of refugees even have access to such resettlement. And since 1980, the United States has welcomed just 3 million refugees within its borders, an average of 0.6 percent of the global refugee population each year.
In return, the United States has benefited both from an infusion of remarkable talent from its new residents and also from the continuation of a system that spreads much of the burden of caring for refugees across many other countries. This is the compact that the Trump administration now threatens to upend, and doing so would directly and negatively impact U.S. national interest, creating greater instability around the world and ultimately requiring the United States to do more internationally, not less.
Troublingly, in the wake of an unprecedented slowdown in U.S. resettlement, other countries have decreased their own resettlement quotas, leaving a 94 percent gap between resettlement needs and actual spaces last year. In turn, major refugee-hosting nations are asking why they should continue to support large populations in their countries.
In fact, the U.N. high commissioner for refugees, Filippo Grandi, and U.N. Secretary-General António Guterres have both warned that their negotiating power with host governments is already diminishing in the wake of the U.S. retreat. Last spring, Guterres remarked to the Washington Post that “it is difficult to explain to a country like Kenya that has more than 500,000 refugees that they should go on accepting this large number of refugees, seeing the kind of measures that the United States or that several European countries are taking.”
Political leaders in refugee-hosting countries are increasingly calling to close their countries’ borders and return refugees to their native countries, a dangerous move that risks prematurely sending large populations into unstable areas. History tells us that such policies can unleash new waves of conflict; of the 15 largest population returns since 1991, one-third were followed by renewed fighting within several years. Avoiding such outcomes will take U.S. leadership. The country led during the 1945 refugee crisis, and it needs to do so again today. Otherwise, given U.S. interests and commitments in these regions, it is only a matter of time before U.S. troops, diplomats, and funds are entangled in these crises. If the United States doesn’t care now, it will soon.
Denis McDonough, formerly White House Chief of Staff during U.S. President Barack Obama's second term, is Executive Fellow in the Keough School of Global Affairs at the University of Notre Dame.